The Florida game usually gets circled first on a Georgia fan’s calendar, but the fact remains that Georgia has never won the SEC East without beating Tennessee. Tennessee’s strong start, though tempered by the loss to Florida, at least helped to diminish the possibility of this Saturday’s game being overlooked before the trip to Columbia next weekend. The Vols can’t and won’t be taken lightly even if it means Mark Richt going back to the video vault to remind his players of the need to bring and build on the level of intensity from the week before.
Aside from the usual (turnovers, penalties, etc.), there are three areas I’ll be watching:
Can Georgia pressure Bray? It seems odd to say with Jarvis Jones on the team, but Georgia is currently in the bottom half of the conference in sacks. Of course the sack stat doesn’t entirely capture the hurries and other mistakes that come from pressure. Let’s look at another metric – interceptions. Georgia has only forced two interceptions through four games, and that’s also near the bottom of the conference. Interceptions aren’t only due to pressure, but a hurried quarterback is more likely to make bad throws and give the defense a chance for more picks.
There’s a lot – maybe too much – to talk about here. We know Georgia’s defense wasn’t at full strength. It might also be that Georgia hasn’t run many of the blitz packages yet that give the 3-4 defense its best chances for pressure. With an inexperienced and makeshift secondary, you’re not as likely to put them in isolated positions behind heavier pressure. The improvised secondary might also have something to do with the interception numbers. Georgia’s defensive backs haven’t intercepted a pass yet – both picks have come from linebackers. Younger defensive backs are just trying to stay in the right coverage and haven’t developed the instincts to break on passes.
All of those theories will be put to the test Saturday when the top priority for the Georgia defense will be to disrupt the potent Tennessee passing game. Will the return of Ogletree affect the pressure Georgia can generate from the front seven? Will Rambo return to the form that led him to eight interceptions in 2011, or is he due a regression towards the 2.5 INT/year he had as an underclassman?
Will Georgia’s offense keep it up? Though this game will be framed as a showdown of strengths (Georgia’s defense vs. Tennessee’s offense), Georgia’s offense should aim for a better showing than their lukewarm performance in Knoxville last season. 20 points was enough to outscore a Tennessee offense that was missing Hunter and lost Bray during an important time in the game. Until a brief third quarter outburst put Georgia out in front to stay, this was a 6-6 game at halftime. The Dawgs put up respectable yardage and avoided turnovers, but a paltry 3-for-12 on third downs kept the Georgia offense from sustaining many drives.
That sounds a lot like the first half offense at Missouri. The inconsistent way Aaron Murray starts games is a fairly mainstream discussion now. Whatever he did to prepare for the Vanderbilt game is worth repeating. At least the running game seems to be reliable enough this year that Murray shouldn’t have to do it all himself, but there’s no question that Georgia’s offense doesn’t click without Murray being in good form. The Vols are giving up an average of 28 points and no fewer than 21 points to its 1-A opponents so far. It could be a sign of trouble if Georgia has the stalled drives, turnovers, and other miscues that keep it from scoring at or above that average. Another total over 40 points should signal a big Georgia win.
Which receiving corps has the better game? Tennessee’s passing game deserves every bit of praise it gets. Bray and the receivers can do damage, but let’s not forget that the Vols’ leading receiver in last season’s game was the tight end, Mychal Rivera. But Georgia’s receivers have started to make some noise, and this game presents an opportunity for them to contrast themselves with one of the conference’s best units.